• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Thursday 16th April, 2015

Parenting skills programs: a gift that keeps on giving?

strong>Effective parenting skills programs are known to have enduring positive effects on children’s health and wellbeing. Research now shows how the long-term benefits can include better attitudes when it comes to raising their own children. New findings – courtesy of research conducted over 15 years in Phoenix, Arizona – accord with existing evidence about the way parenting in one generation influences parenting in the next. Yet this study is the first to show how a relatively short parenting intervention might improve the way that grandchildren as well as children are raised.The way that parents pass on parenting behavior to their offspring is a question that researchers have attempted to answer for many years. Two main narratives have been advanced to explain what is known as “intergenerational transmission”. The first, social learning theory, argues that children absorb the way they are brought up and use that learnt behavior with their own children. The second theory emphasizes “cascading effects”, whereby parenting behavior affects the child’s behavior, plus their social and academic competence. This, in turn, affects the way they choose to parent. From a social learning viewpoint, a parent who uses harsh discipline will influence the way children internalize their experiences and may later favor harsh parenting themselves. From a cascading effects perspective, a warm parent will develop affectionate relationships with their children who will, in turn, feel competent about developing warm personal relationships themselves. Key questions for the Arizona researchers were therefore not only whether the positive attitudes held following a parenting program would be transmitted by their children, but also which of mechanism – social learning or cascading effects – would contribute a more plausible explanation for what happened.New BeginningsThe study began with a sample of 240 children aged 9-12 years of age and their mothers, who had all experienced a divorce within the past two years. The women were randomly assigned to one of three groups: taking part the New Beginnings Program (NPB), an evidence-based intervention for divorced parents; participation in the NBP program plus a coping skills program for their child, or; a control group where different advice books on post-divorce parenting were mailed to families every four weeks. For intervention mothers, the NBP ran for 11 group sessions of 1.75 hours each plus two individual sessions designed to deliver personally tailored support. The group sessions included role-play, training presentations and videotape modeling of parenting skills, as well as leader modeling and home practice. Program fidelity was found to be high and mothers in the intervention groups attended an impressive 77 per cent of sessions.Measurements collected by the research team included interview assessments of mothers’ warmth, their reported use of harsh discipline, their children’s reported competence with friends and peers, children’s academic competence, and children’s behavior. At the 15-year follow-up, the children, who were aged 24 to 28, were asked about their attitudes to parenting. Four out of five originally involved in the study were successfully interviewed.Parenting programs tend to achieve their best effects with those parents whose skills are least well developed to begin with. This was certainly true of the Arizona mothers after they took part in the NBP. However, the study shows that the children of mothers with less good skills were also, 15 years later, more likely to endorse warm, affectionate parenting and reject harsh discipline. Among the control group poorer parenting among mothers was significantly linked to poorer parenting attitudes among their offspring. But this was not the case among the children of mothers who had gone on to take part in the parenting course. A break in transmissionIn other words, there was evidence that taking part in the parenting course had interrupted the intergenerational transmission of poor parenting.A second important finding from the study is that a social learning perspective appeared to provide a better explanation for the transmission of positive parental attitudes than cascading effects theory. Thus, mothers with poor initial parenting who followed the NBP increased their parental warmth, which in turn, predicted warm parenting attitudes in their children.However, neither of the two theories appeared to explain the way that lower levels of attitudes favoring harsh discipline were limited to children whose experiences of harsh discipline had been detected at baseline, before their mothers took part in the parenting course. The researchers say there might be cascading effects they were unable to measure that would help explain this. Alternatively, in terms of social learning, there could be a threshold above at which children internalize their exposure to harsh discipline that was not captured by their study.These continuing uncertainties point towards the limitations of the study, which include the fact that it measured parenting attitudes, rather than actual behavior and that only two parenting dimensions – warmth and harsh parenting – were assessed. There is also scope to gain more insights by studying families with younger children – not least to investigate the transmission effects of harsh discipline. Future research should also aim to discover whether the findings apply across families from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds (the study participants were predominantly White Americans) and – as an undoubted priority – to parenting provided by fathers as well as mothers.Even so, this research sets a notable landmark. Low parental warmth and harsh discipline have been consistently linked to poor long-term outcomes for children including mental and physical health. Now it seems that parenting programs can not only yield better outcomes, but also help break the intergenerational cycle of poor parenting. ************Reference: Mahrer, N. E., Winslow, E., Wolchik, S. A., Tein, J. Y., & Sandler, I. N. (2014). Effects of a Preventive Parenting Intervention for Divorced Families on the Intergenerational Transmission of Parenting Attitudes in Young Adult Offspring. Child Development. Doi: 10.1111/cdev.12258

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